Over the past decade Andorra has grown from a budget priced backwater, known for its duty free drink and easy, cheap and cheerful skiing, to become an emerging major player in the global winter sports industry. The provision of three new high speed six-seaters at Soldeu - El Tarter, linking its snowsure and sunny slopes to those of neighbouring Pas de la Casa - Grau Roig, has created an ultra modern ski terrain – GrandValira – now one of the world’s 20 biggest ski areas and with some of the most hi-tec modern uplift,
The area has long been popular with the British as well as attracting an international mix that includes Dutch, Japanese, Germans and a smattering of North Americans. After all, for the Spaniards, the Pyrenées are the main national mountain chain, whilst the French skiers have a choice. With more than 60 ski areas in this mountain chain which marks the border between France and Spain and has the small principality of Andorra sandwiched between some of the highest peaks, some beautiful, unique scenery and easy access from Barcelona or Toulouse, the Pyrenées should never be under-rated.
The new lifts at Soldeu - El Tarter are only part of a comprehensive management policy, however, which envisages an ever expanding ski area linked to all of the main villages along a 20km (13 mile) stretch of road that runs east from La Vella, the capital city of this tiny principality.
You can already reach the area from Encamp just a few miles from the capital by gondola, and a fourth village and growing accommodation base, Canillo, will be linked by a new gondola, currently under construction. Apart from spreading the range of accommodation options open to visitors, the growth strategists hope that the new access points will also help them to win an apparently losing battle with traffic - Andorra's chief problem.
Each morning the roads are full of cars in a snaking traffic jam up the steep sided valley from La Vella to the ski areas. Strategists have already calculated the maximum number of cars that can be crammed in to the road space, limited by the minimal amount of level ground in the country, before the principality grinds to a halt.
That time doesn't look to be too far off, especially as Andorrans themselves, reportedly generally at the more wealthy end of European living standards, tend to buy the biggest four by fours available. Plans to tackle the problem include an extension of the Spanish rail system in to Andorra itself - making it more tempting for Spaniards, who make up the lion's share of Andorra's market, to consider using public transport. There are now plans to expand the ski area over the border in to France, giving a new access point.
The other improvement designed to attract a more upmarket sector involves concentration on the construction of four and five star accommodation. This will give the area an advantage over both neighbouring areas in the Pyrenées and many of the large French ski areas of the Alps, where it is hard to find better quality accommodation than the thousands of cramped apartments, and where prices are often higher for poorer facilities. The resorts have also been spending on 'alternative facilities' besides skiing and shopping.
Soldeu - El Tarter - Pas -de - la - Casa - Grau Roig was became a ludicrous name as the ski areas merged and so Grandvalira was born.
The skiing itself is generally berated by 'expert' skiers who point to a lack of serious challenges. There is some truth in this but, on the other hand, the off piste terrain is vast and there are options to heli ski and hike or take a skicat up to some of the more challenging off piste terrain.
For the masses of mere mortals however, who don't actually care if there aren't too many near vertical couloirs to throw themselves off, there's a good range of fast wide sunny easy - intermediate slopes, as well as two dozen blacks, across the two resorts. There are long (up to 8km/5 mile) easy runs which are ideal for first timers and improvers to practice their turns on. All in all, with the extensive sunny slopes, perfectly groomed overnight, the ability to move around the area almost entirely by chair lift, and the friendly, unintimidating family atmosphere on the slopes, the feeling is definitely reminiscent of a major Californian or Colorado ski area - the vertical drop is in that bracket too.
The number of express lifts also has an interesting effect on the psyche, which may be worthy of further study by lift theorists. In fact no doubt this has already happened. The fact is that, as you're whisked up the slopes at high speed and whizz down them, you begin to positively resent having to sit on an old fixed-grip quad and take 10 minutes to get to your next downhill snow fix. Rather as personal computers get ever faster and last year's top performer now seems unbearably slow, so it is when you can access most of an area's skiing on high-speed lifts.
Snow conditions are also a little different from those of the Alps. The southern European sunshine can beat down very warmly by the middle of the day, perhaps getting into double figures Celsius. This temperature is quickly reached from normally overnight sub-zeroes, and rapidly returns to around freezing as soon as the sun drops behind the mountains in the late afternoon. Combined with the high altitude and north facing slopes, this means that the slope surface shows few signs of deterioration from such a heat blast.
The proximity to the Mediterranean makes a morning ski and an afternoon swim in the sea a reality, a special treat for the last day before you hop on the plane perhaps. Then again the slopes and lifts are still busy at 5pm if you want to save sea swimming for the summer.
A major bonus for English speaking visitors is the fact that the 230 strong Soldeu - El Tarter ski school, in common with the ski schools at other Andorran areas, employ large numbers of Austrian, Kiwi and British BASI qualified instructors to teach at all levels. Whatever the ESF in France may tell you, this undoubtedly leads to a different attitude to teaching - more friendly, more relaxed and generally more enjoyable than the norm elsewhere in the Alps. Children and first timers seem to benefit especially.